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How to make lean muscle gains

Introduction

So, to give a quick idea as to what has been happening to my training and diet lately; what happened in a nutshell is the following:
I was scheduled to compete in a men’s physique competition and had been on a gruelling diet and weight cut plan for around 8 weeks. At 5 weeks before the competition, I got to know that the competition had been cancelled due to a huge lack of competitors, and where did this leave me? I was basically at my wits’ end. The diet was practically driving me crazy and the only thing keeping me sane at that point was the fact that I wanted to do well and present myself in the best shape ever, and after all the sacrifice I got to know that it had all been done for nothing.

So, having said this, I want to take the occasion to point out that staying lean all year round in a natural way is practically impossible. The body is not made to stay at levels of around 5% body-fat all year round, and doing so is very detrimental to your health. Preparing for a contest and getting down to those levels is already very challenging and hard to obtain, let alone staying that way all year round. So I want to take the opportunity to give some awareness about the fact that such levels of body-fat are not healthy at all when kept in the long term.
Anyway, after this gruelling weight cut, I have decided to start preparing prepare for an IFBB competition being held in Malta next April, so at this point in time, my main aim is to gain more muscle and work on my weak spots.

When people here about gaining muscle, lots ideas about bodybuilders bingeing themselves half to death with food may pop up. And many also think that gaining muscle can only be done by gaining lots of fat as well. When trying to gain muscle, it is normal that body-fat levels will increase so that the body once again maintains itself in a healthy state. However, this does not mean that we need to gain a huge amount of body-fat to gain muscle. Contrary to popular belief, muscle gain can also be done whilst remaining relatively lean (although not in contest ready shape).

Gaining muscle

The key to gaining muscle depends on two main factors:
• Diet – This refers to keeping the body in a constant caloric surplus so that muscle can be built from the excess nutrients that are being supplied.
• Training – This refers to training each muscle group at a high enough intensity level to stimulate muscle growth.
Out of these two factors, I would say that the importance of diet is around 70-80% with the remaining 20-30% going to training. Recovery is also an important aspect. However, as long as you are getting a minimum of 8 hours of sleep and leaving at least 48 hours before training the same muscle groups this should not be an issue. I also find that supplementing with ZMX (before bed) and having L-Glutamine with my meals has helped my recovery by leaps and bounds.

Diet

In terms of diet, a caloric surplus is essential to create an environment where hypertrophy can occur. Many people think of this as the “off-season” or “bulking” phase. They tend to go overboard with caloric surplus and end up gaining too much fat in the process. Most athletes tend to binge (especially after a contest or a weight cut), and in the long term, this can also result in health problems such as diabetes. So, what I would recommend is that one calculates their basal metabolic rate (BMR) and multiplies this by an activity multiplier depending on their lifestyle and activity levels. By doing this, you will obtain your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). This represents the number of calories you have to eat to remain at the same weight that you are at the moment. After doing this, I try and build my diet in such a way that I have a caloric surplus of around 200-300kcal with consisting of at least 1.5g/lb body mass in protein (I find that Diet Whey helps to get enough protein) and the rest of my calories coming from carbohydrates and fats. I try to have high glycaemic index (GI) carbohydrates before and after my workouts and leave low GI for my other meals. This because high GI carbohydrates help provide energy before workout and also provide a better environment for muscle recovery after a workout. Essential fats such as omega-3s are also important to keep hormone levels at their appropriate levels so also be sure to get some of these from supplements or from food sources. I also tend to get most of my calories from clean and unprocessed foods such as oats, rice, chicken breast, fish, etc.

Training

There are many theories about training for hypertrophy. I believe that as long as you are in a caloric surplus and getting a high enough volume of work per muscle group, hypertrophy will occur regardless of the amount of weight you are pushing or the amount of repetitions per set, etc. Personally, I like to work in the range of 12-8 repetitions per set for the sake of hypertrophy. I find that this keeps me safe in terms of injuries and also helps me get enough volume in terms of work. This is not to say that I do not have sessions where I do less repetitions and try to move more weight. However such sessions would then be more strength focused (especially when doing less then 6 repetitions) rather than focused on gaining muscle mass. At the end of the day, I try to make sure that I am getting enough volume and intensity by going by the saying:
“Work until failure every set of every exercise”
This basically means that every set you do, you have to keep going until you cannot do any more repetitions (even if this means you are going beyond your scheduled number of repetitions). If you have done more repetitions with the usual amount of weight, then it is probably time to slightly increase the weight.

Split routine

Another aspect that I have found very useful in my training is using split routines. This means that I only work on specific muscle groups in one session. This helps me get more volume per muscle group, thus creating an even better environment for hypertrophy. A typical split would be to do weight training 5 times every week working in the following order:
– Day 1: Legs,
– Day 2: Chest,
– Day 3: Back,
– Day 4: Shoulders,
– Day 5: Arms.
Other split routines can also be used encompassing 3 times per week such as:
– Day 1: Legs
– Day 2: Chest & Back
– Day 3: Shoulder & Arms
P.S. There are also other split routines that can be used, and these are just examples.

Special thanks

I would like to take this opportunity to all the people who have helped to develop my knowledge and mentality about sports and fitness;
– My karate coaches:

  • James Galea (from Mgarr Karate Club, Malta)
  • Jim Ross (from Yamakai Karate, Scotland)
  • Clayton Gatt (my strength and conditioning coach for Karate)

All of these have greatly contributed to the person I am today and have helped develop my mentality to always give my best and push myself beyond my limits both in a fitness and sports environment and in life in general.